L'amour, Toujours L'amour: Sabrina (1954)
I'm on a blogathon roll, apparently. This post is part of the My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon in celebration of National Classic Movie Day (May 16th). Go check out what are sure to be many amazing contributions here!
You may have noticed that the blogathon's theme requires me to write about my favorite film, which if you've been paying attention, you'll know is The Wizard of Oz. I'm crazy about it, and while the rules say that I can re-post a piece if I've already written about my favorite, I felt weird doing that, especially since I hadn't written it that long ago. So, I wanted to recognize the one film that could potentially, possibly, maybe replace The Wizard of Oz. Like, if Oz was forever made unavailable (oh goodness, I think I'm having a panic attack), this is the film I'd turn to in an instant. Well, after the proper period of mourning. I've kind of ruined the suspense with my title and that picture, but the movie I'm talking about is Sabrina.
I've mentioned my love for Sabrina and its beautiful, romantic whimsy before in my Billy Wilder top ten list, but that didn't allow me the chance to obsess over it to my full potential. I mean, I wrote a legitimate college paper over this film and got an A+, so I'm kind of an expert. I've been university-approved. This was Hepburn's first film after her Oscar win for Roman Holiday; she was also nominated for this role. William Holden is fantastic, as always--he and Wilder worked so well together. And I don't care what anyone says, I thoroughly enjoy Bogie as Linus. I don't want to hear anybody complain about the age difference or anything. To me, it doesn't hurt the film and if you're going to let something as superficial as that keep you from liking a movie, you're missing out. Let's begin the beguine, shall we?
The film opens with the melodious voice of Audrey Hepburn as she introduces us to the wealthy Larrabee family, which includes Linus and David, two brothers who couldn't be more different. This narration is very reminiscent of how one opens a fairy tale, and that's no mistake because Sabrina is like the 1950's Cinderella (besides, you know, the classic 1950 Disney version). The Sabrina of the title is the daughter of the chauffeur of the Larrabees. All her life, she's been in love with the reckless and ruggedly handsome David. David is too clueless to realize that the girl who lives above the garage is crazy about him, leading to lots of heartache for Sabrina. Linus isn't oblivious to Sabrina, but romance is never on his mind because business always is. One night at an infamous Larrabee party, Sabrina watches from the literal shadows as David woos yet another society girl without noticing her. Despite her father's plans for her to go to Paris the next day to attend cooking school, the girl is too heartbroken and would rather attempt suicide by starting all the cars in the garage and locking herself in. Don't worry, it's never taken seriously by the film and Sabrina botches it pretty badly, especially because Linus finds her before much happens.
I'm constantly surprised at how rich this film is. On the surface, it's just a cute romantic comedy, but I think the fact that it's a Billy Wilder picture should tell you that there's much more to it than that. Wilder doesn't just do comedy--he does commentary on social classes, gender, and other social issues that may be apparent or not. With Sabrina, there's definitely the separation of the classes. In an incidental way, Sabrina is able to jump classes and it makes a lot of people uncomfortable. Her father has two catchphrases that exemplify this: "Don't reach for the moon, child" (meaning: don't pine for David because he's too rich and it ain't going to happen) and "Life is like a limousine--there's a front and back and a window in between" (meaning: the richies are relaxing in back, with a separation while the poor drive them). In one scene, Sabrina dances with David and the other wealthy guests on a raised terrace while her servant friends wave at her from below. It's pretty clear how separated the classes are.
Admittedly, I wrote my paper over the film's score, so I have a lot to say about it. We all know that scores are supposed to complement the film--they comment on the action; they create a mood; they cue what feelings you're supposed to experience. For Sabrina, it determined relationships and echoed characters and their development. “My Silent Love” is the first song that becomes attached to Sabrina, with its lyrics of a one-sided love affair perfectly aligning with Sabrina’s situation. As she hides in a tree to watch David and Gretchen dance at the Larrabees’ party, the band’s vocalist sings “I reach for you like I reach for a star/Worshipping you from afar/Living with my silent love,” with the camera cutting back and forth between Sabrina and David, each time moving in closer to Sabrina until it becomes a close-up of her face, showing that the camera and the score are identifying with her.
While Sabrina follows David to the tennis court for his rendezvous with Gretchen, “My Silent Love” is seamlessly transitioned into “Isn’t it Romantic?” For the rest of the film, this will be the song most closely associated with David. The Richard Rodgers-Lorenz Hart tune is breezy and bright, with lyrics that talk about one night of romantic bliss. David has a routine he uses on girls during his family’s parties where they dance with the rest of the guests until he suggests they go to the mansion’s empty tennis court to drink champagne and dance in private. David always requests the band to play “Isn’t it Romantic?” for these secret meetings, and throughout the film he can be heard whistling it. David does not take these romantic encounters seriously, therefore the audience does not take the catalytic song seriously.
“Isn’t it Romantic?” stops playing once Sabrina leaves David and Gretchen to go to her room. Her father stops her to talk about her trip to Paris the next day, but as he continues talking, David’s song slowly drifts in, demonstrating that Sabrina is starting to tune her father out because she is thinking about David. As soon as Sabrina is by herself, the song becomes more audible. The music remains as Sabrina decides she wants to commit suicide since David is ignorant of her and her feelings. She goes downstairs to the garage and starts up all of the cars, gradually drowning out the band’s playing. When the car fumes start to overwhelm her, Sabrina opens a window, allowing the music to come back in. During this sequence, the music is never dramatic or somber, something that would usually code to the audience that what is happening onscreen is serious and should be treated as such. Because a frivolous song is playing, the audience knows that Sabrina is not really going to succeed in killing herself—it is more of a gesture in her romantic fantasy of David.
The most important song in Sabrina is “La Vie en Rose.” Its initial appearance in the story takes place as Sabrina writes a letter to her father from Paris. She hears someone playing the song and comments that the title is “the French way of saying ‘I’m looking at the world through rose-colored glasses’ and it says everything I feel.” Sabrina’s connection to “La Vie en Rose” is tied to the two years she has spent in Paris, a time that she constantly looks back on as the happiest of her life. Her experience changes her: “I have learned how to live, how to be in the world and of the world, and not just to stand aside and watch.” This is made clear when this scene segues from Sabrina’s Parisian apartment to her waiting for her father at the Glen Cove station. “La Vie en Rose” is changed from a simple accordion arrangement to a lush orchestration that mirrors the camera’s reveal that Sabrina’s plain style has now become sophisticated.
While this piece of music illustrates how Sabrina has transformed, David’s whistling of “Isn’t it Romantic?” as he drives by the station shows that he has not changed. He slams on the brakes when he sees Sabrina, causing his sports car to screech (a sound repeatedly made by David’s car to demonstrate that he continues to live in the fast lane). He invites her to the annual Larrabee party, fulfilling the fantasy Sabrina had witnessed before with David and many other women. The shift in her character is noticeable when she first arrives to the party and David stretches his arm out to her and calls her name. She stays stationary as she stretches her arm out and calls his name, forcing him to come to her. She is no longer the girl who watched the party hidden by a tree, so when David starts repeating his usual routine of sneaking away to the tennis court, Sabrina calls him out on it. However, she encourages it and even reminds him to ask the band to play “Isn’t it Romantic?” She goes along with the plan because it further indulges her romantic fantasy.
The aptly-titled “Shadow Waltz” (which you may remember from Gold Diggers of 1933) plays as Sabrina dances by herself at the dark tennis court waiting for David, only to have Linus walk in instead. Sabrina does not know that Linus tricked David into sitting on champagne glasses so as to keep him bedridden while Linus finds a way to separate the couple. Both of the Larrabee brothers’ strategies revolve around deception, albeit tailored to their own interests—David uses it to seduce women and Linus uses it to succeed in business. With Sabrina out of the picture, David can go through with the marriage Linus set up for him to seal a merger with the father of the bride’s company. However, when he first starts to mislead Sabrina, Linus practices David’s tricks, demonstrating that Linus is all-business and does not engage in romance, therefore he has no tricks of his own. He replaces David at the tennis court, especially when “Isn’t it Romantic?” starts to play. Sabrina tells Linus that she always dreamed about this moment with David, so Linus steps in, dancing, drinking champagne, and giving Sabrina a kiss after asking if David would do the same. Watch it here.
Because she revealed such a strong tie to “Isn’t it Romantic?” at the tennis court, Linus recognizes the importance of music to Sabrina. While preparing for their first date on a sailboat, Linus’s father jokingly suggests Linus take his broken ukulele with him, but Linus replies “Music might help. Seems to me I had a portable phonograph from my freshmen days.” The scene cuts to Sabrina winding an old phonograph as they are listening to “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” a novelty song that is not to be taken seriously, like the relationship Linus is trying to forge with Sabrina. It is interesting to note that because of Sabrina, Linus was forced to dig up his record player, symbolizing that she brings music back into his life. He clearly has not been paying attention to music for years since his record collection is dusty and full of songs from the 1920’s. This occasion shows the generation gap between Linus and Sabrina. She assumes that the songs are new, which he lets her believe to amuse himself.
When she puts on another record (“My Ideal,” a song that worries about never finding love), Linus asks Sabrina to turn it off and pretends that it reminds him of an ex-lover. Sabrina believes him, saying “Certain songs bring back certain memories to me, too.” He uses music, the thing most closely associated with Sabrina, and twists it for his own deception. The tactic works, leaving Sabrina with the impression that Linus is more like her than she thought. After their date, Linus exchanges Sabrina’s shoes for his coat and is shown walking away with the closed-up record player resembling a briefcase, reiterating that to Linus, this is a business transaction. To Sabrina, though, it is something else. She had advised Linus to go to Paris to be happier, which is when “La Vie en Rose” rushes into the soundtrack. It continues to play after Linus has left, even when Sabrina sings to herself a fragment of “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” This demonstrates that she has already united the image of Linus with the image of Paris, and subsequently of happiness. You can see most of this scene here.
Once they are alone, Sabrina asks David to kiss her, but as they kiss, “La Vie en Rose” plays, illustrating that Linus is on her mind and is overpowering her feelings for David. She asks for a second kiss, but when that still does not get rid of the song, she begs David to keep talking. She knows she is falling for Linus, so she tries to combat her emotional connection to him with her physical connection to David. The song’s refusal to go away, however, shows that she is unsuccessful. When Sabrina learns the truth about Linus’s deception, she decides to go back to Paris, which Linus assumes she will be doing with David. Sabrina’s ocean liner blowing its horn underscores the scene where Linus holds a meeting to tell the board members that David has left with Sabrina, therefore ending the merger. The horn builds tension as the audience wonders if Sabrina will really leave, or if Linus will actually stay. Once the ocean liner is shown leaving in the background, Linus starts the meeting only to be interrupted by David. Realizing that David’s appearance means Sabrina is alone, the ship’s horn has a different connotation. Instead of it meaning that Sabrina has chosen David and left Linus, the horn really insinuates that both she and Linus will be alone.
David’s arrival also represents a role reversal between the brothers. Throughout Linus and Sabrina’s relationship, Linus has been copying David by doing things such as driving his sports car and using his name to get a table at a nightclub. By the end of the film, though, David realizes that Sabrina’s feelings have changed, and so he takes on Linus’s persona in order to free his brother to be with Sabrina. He walks into the board meeting dressed like Linus, and then he verbally repeats Linus’s words from earlier when he had announced David’s engagement to the gossip columns. Once Linus leaves, their father tries to helm the meeting, but David tells him to sit, triggering the glass bottle in his pocket to break, thus mimicking when Linus had caused David to sit on glass and put him out of circulation.
Now that Sabrina and Linus can be together, “La Vie en Rose” returns as a fast-paced and jaunty version as Linus rushes to catch Sabrina’s ship. Once he is onboard, the music’s notes match in rhythm to his steps and movements, such as when he hooks his umbrella on a passerby’s coat. Change and Paris are often linked together in the film. When Linus lies initially about going to Paris, Sabrina advises him to modify the shape of his hat and never carry an umbrella so he will not look like a tourist. At the movie’s end, Linus does just this, indicating that he is ready for Paris and therefore ready for Sabrina. The song has evolved from being a symbol of Paris and Sabrina’s happiness to becoming the theme of Sabrina and Linus as a couple, representing the happiness of both of them.
Sabrina is a coming-of-age story essentially. The first half of the film is focused on David, who personifies the daydream of a young girl. The second half centers on Linus, who represents maturity and responsibility. Similar to a melodrama, the emotions of the characters spill over to the score, but while it expresses how characters feel, it also exemplifies the larger themes of the film, such as transformation. This idea of transformation is reiterated in the costumes, which were famously done by Edith Head and Hubert de Givenchy.
In these first few scenes, Sabrina’s dress pattern blends in with her environment, whether it is a tree or the wallpaper and rocking chair in her room. This dress furthers the idea that Sabrina is overlooked by David, whose white dinner jacket, light hair, and straw hat are as vital to his characterization as “Isn’t it Romantic?” because they illustrate that he takes things lightly. It should be noted that Holden’s hair was lightened for the role, presumably so he would be in greater contrast to Bogart.
I could honestly go on and on about this movie, but you might start to get bored after a few days. So, instead of me continuing to blabber, do yourself a huge favor and check out Sabrina! It's criminally been taken off of Netflix, and if you enjoy life, you'll never ever ever watch the 1995 remake with Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear. I love those men, but that film makes me see red like none other. Wilder apparently agreed because after Sydney Pollack showed it to him, Wilder calmly remarked that he never tried to remake Pollack's The Way We Were, implying that the director probably shouldn't have touched his picture. Thank you for that, Mr. Wilder, and thank you for the wonder that is Sabrina.